It has been a little more than a year since Abby Beckley became the first known human in history to contract a rare eye worm. But she remembers the entire ordeal like it was yesterday.
“Strange things can happen to anyone at any time,” Beckley, 28, tells PEOPLE. “This was so shocking. There was a six-month period [afterward] where whenever I would feel anything in my eye, I would just go and stare in the mirror for a long time.”
In the summer of 2016, Beckley, of Brookings, Oregon, was working on a fishing boat in Alaska when she felt an itchy, tingling sensation in her eye — and thought it was just an eye lash. But after minutes of inspecting her left eye in the mirror, she pulled a thin, white worm from just above her lower eye lid.
“I was honestly in shock, in actual disbelief … I couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” she says, noting that she frantically woke up another worker to look at her eye. “She was shocked too! Then we went into problem-solving. We were like, ‘Okay, let’s research this.’ And of course we couldn’t find anything.”
That’s because Beckley suffered from Thelazia gulosa —a type of cattle eyeworm. Although a few species of Thelazia has been found in humans, Beckley’s is the first reported case of gulosa in known history, according to the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Beckley soon returned to her Oregon home and sought help from doctors, but some had a hard time believing Beckley’s story.
“They were just very skeptical. Like, ‘Okay, this must be mucous and we’d be really shocked to see if this is actually real,’ ” Bekcley recalls the doctors saying. However, after waiting for 30 minutes, one of the small creatures squiggled across her eye ball.
“I could feel them at that point, I felt one come to the surface of my eye and I was like, ‘Oh my God! You need to look!’ They looked and they were just stunned.”
As doctors scrambled to figure out what was happening to Beckley, she says she feared the worms would crawl into her brain or impact her eyesight. As the weeks passed, Beckley went into “a little bit of a slump,” she says, and rarely left the house.
“It was really hard for me to do anything because I was distracted by [the worms]. It was like living in a nightmare. It was like, ‘When is this ever going to end?’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “But then as I pulled [the worms] out, my eye got better and it was more and more easy to do things.”
During her search for answers, Beckley removed a total of 14 worms from her eye over the course of three weeks.
“They would go behind my eye and I couldn’t feel them when they were behind my eye,” she tells PEOPLE of the worms. “I could only feel them when they came to the surface, so it was just this sometimes I’d feel them and sometimes I wouldn’t. Whenever I would feel one, I would stop wherever I was and I would go to a mirror and pull them out.”
It was medical parasitologist Richard Bradbury who identified the species of worm after reading a nearly 90-year-old journal written in German, according to NPR. Although officials have not been able to pinpoint just when and how Beckley contracted the parasite, Bradbury said the eye worm is spread by flies that feed on the larvae that lives on the eyes of cattle.
Just months before her trip to Alaska, Beckley lived on an inactive cattle ranch, but says there was only one cow on the property. She says she never even came in contact with the animal. Beckley says she’s just glad the ordeal is over.
“I am not fearful at all, still to this day, of anything. Life is pretty normal,” she says.
Well, almost normal.
“I have a bit of a sensitivity to flies now.”